UN Action Plan for Afghanistan ; A Conversation with Francesc Vendrell, the United Nations Special Envoy to Afghanistan
Scott Peterson writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
Diplomats are racing to map out the post-Taliban future of Afghanistan, to take advantage of the fluid political situation created by the radical Islamic militia's unexpectedly swift retreat.
While the term "nation-building" is not being used - memories of the disastrous 1993 operation in Somalia still haunt Washington and the United Nations - top officials are trying to guarantee broad- based, representative rule in Afghanistan.
"We have a window of opportunity ... that is narrow, and it's not going to last forever. Therefore we must move quickly," says UN special envoy to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, in an interview in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
International goodwill - and billions of dollars in relief aid - depend on a workable political settlement. "That should be a great incentive to the Afghans to move forward quickly, to not repeat the mistakes of the past," Mr. Vendrell says. "If this is not enough, I don't know what it's going to take."
Since the rebel Northern Alliance - a loose grouping of ethnic minority forces and eight political parties - captured Kabul last week from the Taliban, and advanced farther south toward the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, Western officials have been urging caution.
While the alliance publicly endorses the peace moves, at least two old-guard alliance leaders - President Burhanuddin Rabbani and Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf - are believed to be privately reluctant to share power.
Questions also remain about who will represent Afghanistan's dominant Pashtun ethnic group - which also dominates the Taliban - and whether those representatives will be acceptable to the majority of their fellow tribesmen.
Juggling these variables, diplomats are working overtime to produce a framework formula for Afghanistan's future meant to yield - like alchemy - a legitimate and stable government from the ruins of two decades of war.
The four-point plan presented to the UN Security Council by Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN secretary-general's special representative to Afghanistan, begins with the creation of a provisional council that will manage day-to-day functions until a loya jirga, or grand assembly, can be formed.
That assembly in turn is to select a provisional and broad-based government - and possibly even a head of state. That body would rule with help from the international community for maybe two years, Vendrell says. A new army and police force would be established.
The final step is to be the approval of a constitution and the holding of elections. The first move is a UN-sponsored all-party meeting - minus the Taliban - that is to begin work in Germany on Monday.
"The key to all this is to ensure a level playing field from now on" so that no single group has an advantage in the loya jirga, Vendrell says. This is critical, he says, because "one of the root causes" of war in Afghanistan is the lack of legitimacy of past regimes, which turned into "invitations to outsiders to come in and help their favorites. …